Several publications released their updated lists of Heisman Trophy leaders last week. One name was notably absent: Jabrill Peppers.
The leaders, according to top-five lists released by both Sports Illustrated and USA Today, are as follows: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, followed by OSU’s J.T. Barrett and Washington’s Jake Browning, in order. SI rounded out an all-QB top five with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, while USA Today touted San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphery at #4 and then Deshaun Watson at #5. (Barrett’s Buckeye team has since lost to Penn State, so that will definitely hurt his chances.)
Of course, these lists are strictly unofficial, but the media does have a large role in shaping the conversation around the race - largely because 94% of the Heisman voting comes from those in the media. Basically, if you don’t get hype during the season, you’re definitely not going to win it after the season.
Unfortunately, in a down year for quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, there has still not been a lot of discussion from Heisman voters about defensive players even contending for the award. And this, to me, feels stagnant. It may be a crowded field behind the clear front-runner, but Jabrill Peppers has a very strong case as the best of Lamar Jackson’s challengers.
For a bit of context, it’s important to note that things weren’t always the way they are now. The trend toward quarterbacks began in earnest in 2000, when Florida State’s Chris Weinke broke a three-year streak of non-quarterback winners. Since then, 13 of the 16 Heisman winners have been QBs, and the other three were running backs representing blue-blood programs during periods of great success.
Things really took off around 2006, when dual-threat quarterbacks like Troy Smith and Tim Tebow started to dominate the voters’ attention. Ever since then, there has been a strong tendency toward dual-threat quarterbacks in particular - which is a shame, because if there was ever a year for a less traditional candidate to gain some steam, it would be 2016.
After all, the #2 player on those lists I mentioned, J.T. Barrett, entered this weekend averaging 201 passing yards to go with 72.3 rushing yards a game - decent numbers, certainly, but not the kind of performance you’d associate with Marcus Mariota or Cam Newton. Jalen Hurts is averaging less than 200 pass yards a game, has surpassed 32 rushing yards in a game just four times in eight games, and yet he finds himself as a ‘dark horse’ contender for the Heisman when he’s not even a realistic contender for All-American honors.
Basically, the love for dual-threat QBs has gotten to be too much. The truth is, this has been a down year for dual-threat quarterbacks, outside of Lamar Jackson’s brilliance.
It has also been a down year for superstar running backs like Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb, though it’s worth noting Fournette has been out with an injury and got 100 yards or more in each of the four games he’s played - including an unbelievable performance last night. FSU’s Dalvin Cook has done well in getting 900 yards through 7 games, but his Seminoles are tied for third in their division - not exactly Heisman material.
Meanwhile, defensive players like Christian Wilkins, Jabrill Peppers, and Desmond King are racking up big plays on defense and also chipping in on offense or special teams, and somehow aren’t getting more than a cursory look. That isn’t fair, so I figured I’d throw my hat into this a little bit. I have no Heisman vote, but I think it’s time to inject a slightly new perspective into a discussion that has felt increasingly stale, and even like déjà vu, these past few seasons.
And I don’t just say this for the benefit of Peppers - because, as you’ll see below, I think he’s still a few touchdowns and big plays away from seriously contending, even in a perfect system. But a more open race for the Heisman would, I think, give fans a more exciting race, and be fairer for all the players.
So, while keeping all that in mind, here is how I would measure the race for the Heisman.
#1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Jackson suffered an off-week against Duke two weeks ago, but rebounded against NC State in a solid way: he went 20/34, threw for 355 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, and led his team in rushing with 76 yards and another score.
It’s worth noting that even if he performed like he has over the last couple weeks - great, but not immortal - it will be hard to beat him out in the Heisman race simply because of how absurdly dominant he was over the season’s first five games.
Season: 2,161 passing yards, 18/4 TD-to-INT ratio, 58.2% completions, 908 rush yards, 16 rush TD’s
Projected: 4,013 passing yards, 33/7 TD ratio, 1,686 rush yards, 30 rush TD’s
The road isn’t getting that much harder for the young man: upcoming games will be against Virginia, Boston College, Wake Forest, Houston, and then Kentucky.
#2. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Is he a Heisman front-runner? No. Has he had a Heisman moment? No, again. Does he deserve to sit outside of the top five in any serious Heisman conversation? Absolutely not.
To be completely honest, I think Peppers would win the Heisman easily if he chose to return next year. But I think he’ll have a very difficult case to make at the end of this one. The breakaway touchdowns haven’t quite been there; the yards haven’t been there. He currently has no interceptions or passes broken up.
Season: 40 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 fumble forced, 514 all-purpose yards, 112 on offense, 3 touchdowns
Projected: 80 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 fumbles forced, 1,028 all-purpose yards, 224 on offense, 6 touchdowns
At the same time, the mere fact that Jabrill is taking snaps at quarterback, running the ball and playing defense, taking punt returns and even a few kickoff returns, and generally affecting every aspect of the game in such a big way - all of this adds up to a true, resonant Heisman contender. Nobody does what Jabrill does. Not Charles. Not Lamar. Nobody.
That should count for something. In fact, it should count for a lot.
#3. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
Ironically, one of the teams suffering from Heisman voters’ tunnel vision regarding dual-threat quarterbacks is one of the teams with a superstar dual-threat quarterback: the Clemson Tigers, not just the home of Deshaun Watson.
Christian Wilkins is a 6’4”, 310-pound defensive lineman who lines up all over the field on offense or defense for the Tigers. Along the defensive line, Wilkins started the season on the interior then moved out to strongside defensive end when his teammate was injured. He’s been equally effective at rushing the passer as he has been at stuffing the run.
You probably don’t believe me that Wilkins is Heisman material. But imagine Rashan Gary in a couple years, and now you’ve got a firm picture of what Christian Wilkins is like for the Tigers.
Season: 31 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 fumble recovered, 1 blocked kick, 11 yards on offense, 1 touchdown
Projected: 62 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 2 fumbles recovered, 2 blocked kicks, 22 yards on offense, 2 touchdowns
First, let’s consider that he can stop the run. I mean, ‘take on an interior block, hold position, disengage and then flip the running back’ stop the run. He can still be an enforcer in the pass game, somehow. Maybe because you can find him keeping up with receivers downfield.
#4. Jake Browning, Washington
While not quite the phenom that Lamar Jackson has been, Jake Browning has carried a resurgent Washington Huskies team in just his second year at the college level. He’s been cool, calm, and collected while doing so, too.
In fact, in the last three weeks, Browning has led back-to-back-to-back blowout victories over division opponents: first Stanford and Oregon, two teams that once dominated the Pac-12 North, and yesterday Oregon State, which is still trying to make its way up under Gary Andersen. Washington’s star QB went 51/77 with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions in those games.
The last five weeks will feature teams that are a combined 24-11, but only two of those teams have a top-50 defense. He’ll have plenty of sneaky good chances to look good to the voters, in other words.
Season: 1,709 passing yards, 26/2 TD-to-INT ratio, 68.6% completions, 69 rush yards, 4 rush TD’s
Projected: 3,418 passing yards, 52/4 TD ratio, 138 rush yards, 8 rush TD’s
Something else that’s running in Browning’s favor is the Huskies’ inside track to win the Pac-12 North, which would give him a 14th game (the Pac-12 Championship Game) to pad his stats some more. Both Washington and WSU are tied at 3-0 in the conference, but Washington is 7-0 overall while Wazzu is riding along at 4-2. Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson and Louisville currently have an uphill climb in their own division to beat out Clemson.
#5. Patrick Mahomes II
Not every Heisman candidate is going to satisfy all the normal criteria of previous Heisman winners - kind of like how not every James Bond is going to be the same. But the single, gigantic black mark for Patrick Mahomes’ candidacy is a big one: his team’s 3-4 record. Players simply aren’t considered for the Heisman if their team is 3-4.
People will also say he’s a system quarterback at Texas Tech, where anybody could put up big numbers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Mahomes is a very special player, and the production he’s putting up is staggering. It’s quietly been on par with Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
Season: 3,313 passing yards, 26/6 TD-to-INT ratio, 68.3% completions, 237 rush yards, 9 rush TD’s
Projected: 5,679 passing yards, 45/10 TD ratio, 406 rush yards, 15 rush TD’s
It will be a small victory if Mahomes can carry his team into a bowl game, with some challenging games left against TCU, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Ultimately, Texas Tech’s win total may be an immediate disqualifier, but Mahomes is a very rare kind of talent - and his numbers speak for themselves.
#6-10: Jonathan Allen, Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, Desmond King, J.T. Barrett
Jonathan Allen is another defender who’s flying under the radar while being the best player on a playoff team. The defensive lineman has collected six sacks, scored two touchdowns, and tallied 35 tackles with 8 for a loss for Alabama’s defense.
Cornerback Desmond King is, very quietly, putting up the kind of résumé-boosting numbers for Iowa that many had hoped Jabrill would have at this point - but in King’s case, there is no megaphone to amplify his accomplishments to anyone outside of his own fan base. He’s also playing fewer positions, and his team is 5-3.
There was also this truly phenomenal play against North Dakota State, but NDSU ended up winning, 23-21. So no Heisman moment there.
So, that’s my top ten. You might feel like there are too many dual-threat quarterbacks in this list, or you might feel like there are too few, or that I’ve overvalued some defensive players’ contributions.
Regardless, one thing I’ve tried is to blend both sides of the ball on one list, and compare the impact these guys have for their teams even though they often play wildly different roles that often aren’t captured by statistics. It might be a thankless job, but it’s something Heisman voters should try, too.